Boys in a Dory, 1873
Watercolour by Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910 )

Prepositions can be tricky. Should one say “in a boat” or “on a boat”? A stickler for proper English, I always choose the former when the reference is to small watercraft such as a fishing boat, a dinghy or a skiff. Tradition is on my side on this issue.

Consider the following excerpts (underscoring mine) from the works of famous writers:

From Edward Lear’s 1846 collection of limericks, The Book of Nonsense:

There was an Old Man in a boat,
Who said, “I’m afloat! I’m afloat!”
When they said, “No, you ain’t!” he was ready to faint,
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

From Joseph Conrad’s 1912 autobiographical work, A Personal Record:

He was the oldest member by a long way in that company, and I was, if I may say so, its temporarily adopted baby. He had been a pilot longer than any man in the boat could remember; thirty—forty years.

From Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea:

Sometimes someone would speak in a boat. But most of the boats were silent except for the dip of the oars. They spread apart after they were out of the mouth of the harbour and each one headed for the part of the ocean where he hoped to find fish.

The case of yachts and ships

Interestingly, it is customary to say “on a yacht” instead of “in a yacht”. The following exerpts from two British newspapers illustrate the usage (underscoring mine):

Everyone on the yacht was rescued and rushed to safety. Three divers suffered minor injuries, the company said.

One crew member on a charter yacht said clients on her ship sometimes asked if the water they served came from plastic bottles, but did not mind spending weeks on a boat that guzzles fossil fuels.

There’s a reason in such cases for using “on” instead of “in”. A small boat has no deck. A person is literally in the vessel. On the other hand, a sailing yacht would have a deck for the sailor to stand on. Luxury yachts such as those owned by American and Russian billionaires have a superstructure and more than one deck.

The same is true for a cargo or passenger vessel. One would rightly use the phrase “on the ship”, not “in the ship” (the latter sounds awkward anyway).

 

From The Washington Times news headline, 16 April 1912:

In ordinary conversation, people often use the word “boat” in lieu of “ship”—e.g., “he got on the next boat to Tokyo”. I daresay that the use of the preposition “on” in this instance is correct inasmuch as the speaker is clearly referring to a ship and not some small boat. Context sometimes matters.

~ Barista Uno

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